Mod­ern Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism: Evolv­ing Thought and Practice

Rab­bi Elliot N. Dorff; Rab­bi Julie Schon­feld, fwd.
  • Review
By – October 22, 2018

Rab­bi Elliot N. Dorff, rec­tor and dis­tin­guished ser­vice pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty, clear­ly artic­u­lates Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism’s essen­tial, vital, and unique char­ac­ter” with the pub­li­ca­tion of Mod­ern Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism: Evolv­ing Thought and Prac­tice. An edi­tor of Emet Ve-Emu­nah, the offi­cial state­ment of prin­ci­ples for the Move­ment, and the author of twelve books on Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy, law, and ethics, Dorff is a wide­ly read and broad­ly accept­ed voice for Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism. As iden­ti­fied in its pref­ace, Mod­ern Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism is an intro­spec­tive, thought-pro­vok­ing dis­cus­sion of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism’s emerg­ing beliefs and prac­tices over the last fifty years.” It is an acces­si­ble read, designed as a source book for ado­les­cent and adult edu­ca­tion, for use in col­lege cours­es, as a ref­er­ence for cler­gy and edu­ca­tors, and for a sin­gle read­er of any faith and lev­el of knowl­edge of Jew­ish life.

Fol­low­ing an intro­duc­tion that traces the his­to­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism from its Euro­pean begin­nings, Dorff divides the book into three sec­tions. Sec­tion one explores Con­ser­v­a­tive Jewry’s under­stand­ing of God, and approach­ing God through prayer. The sec­ond sec­tion con­sid­ers Jew­ish law and prac­tice, includ­ing indi­vid­ual chap­ters on bioethics, sex­u­al­i­ty, busi­ness ethics, and the role of women in Jew­ish life. Sec­tion three presents the Movement’s stance on Jew­ish peo­ple­hood and the State of Israel, and pro­vides select­ed pri­ma­ry sources on Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish prac­tice in the Jew­ish State.

Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est is the fifth chap­ter, P’sak Din,” which explores the phi­los­o­phy behind Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish prac­tice and the Movement’s com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing Judaism as it devel­oped his­tor­i­cal­ly.” At the same time, notes Rab­bi Dorff,

Con­ser­v­a­tive lead­ers rec­og­nize that some­times laws and cus­toms must change – just as they have his­tor­i­cal­ly – par­tic­u­lar­ly when change is need­ed to engage peo­ple effec­tive­ly in Jew­ish tradition.

This chap­ter out­lines the process through which Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ry, both on a local and com­mu­nal lev­el, guides the evo­lu­tion of Jew­ish prac­tice. It con­cludes with an excerpt from Rab­bi Gor­don Tucker’s paper on plu­ral­ism in Jew­ish law, which seeks to bal­ance the role of the Com­mit­tee on Jew­ish Law and Stan­dards, Con­ser­v­a­tive Jewry’s gov­ern­ing body for com­mu­nal prac­tice, with the role of a pul­pit rab­bi, in deter­min­ing expec­ta­tions for local practice.

The book con­cludes with an epi­logue, The Ide­al Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew,” in which Dorff reiterates:

Being a Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew entails hard work … It requires judg­ment to deter­mine when to live by the tra­di­tion alone, when to live by moder­ni­ty alone, and, in most cas­es, when and how to blend tra­di­tion with modernity.

Mod­ern Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism offers the back­ground need­ed to under­stand and nego­ti­ate this process. It serves as a valu­able tool for shar­ing the rel­e­van­cy and authen­tic­i­ty of Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ry with the next generation.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions